Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Paris Wife - Paula McClain

A conversation with a really close friend today made me think of The Paris Wife. How do you know when a marriage is over? This friend, who recently walked out of her marriage after 15 years, the last several abusive, without so much as a rupee to her name, has come under flak from friends and family for putting up with it so long. While I’m thrilled to see that attitudes have changed, and that no one advocates living with abuse any longer, I also think she deserves a break.

As does Hadley Richardson. The Paris Wife is the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, the woman who put her faith in him before the world did. The New York Times review, and the wonderful new friend who lent me the book, were both scathing of Hadley’s tolerance of ‘Hem’ and for staying on in the marriage longer than necessary.

I felt rather differently. I completely agreed with Hadley’s decision to leave him, but I’m not surprised that it took her long. (Not that long, by the way, they were married only about 5 years in any case.) But let me start this story from the beginning.
Hadley Richardson was a sensitive, quiet woman in her late 20s, past the first flush of youth, when she met Hemingway, at the start of the 1920s. An injury in her early childhood had meant she led a reclusive, overprotected life, in the shadow of her suffragette mother, and scarred probably even more than she realised, by the suicide of her father. Hemingway, some eight years her junior, swept her off her feet. Eventually, using her money, the couple moved to Paris so that he could devote himself to writing…as all the literati of the time, like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald lived there.

In theory, this should make for a grand tale. My quibble with the story, is not Hadley’s meekness. What annoys me is that in spite of such fantastic material – a stellar cast of characters, a luminous setting – the story never rises above the ordinary. The writing is far too uninspired, and the characters, are just a series of names dropped, with no real insights. The big names aren’t just exposed to have feet of clay (which still would make a good story) but are rather small, commonplace people.
What I did like is how beautifully the squalor and poverty of an artist’s life is portrayed. It, definitely, is not for the fainthearted. Hemingway’s neuroses, ego and changing personality are nicely done too. I’ve never been much of a fan of the writer, even though I’ve struggled with A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not, so I was not approaching The Paris Wife with anything close to reverence. At the end of it, of course, I was not a fan of the man either. I found his combination of puritanism, self indulgence, pig-headedness and licentiousness repelling.

Hadley I feel much kinder towards. Definitely a misfit in the hard glitter and shallowness of the parisien life, her essential niceness comes through. So what if she seems retrogressive? From our 21st century perspective, it is easy to be judgemental. Hadley, I believe, was a woman of her time, even as her female contemporaries were trying to be progressive. She wasn’t glamorous, she wasn’t creative, but she was solid. I can understand her staying. I can understand her thinking things would improve. I can understand her trusting someone, and then being shocked at betrayal. I can understand her wanting to believe that her love was true, and that it would triumph. I can understand her inability to see what was happening. I can understand her paralysis when faced with life changing choices. When you trust someone that much, you never imagine, for a moment, that they have changed; moved away.

In fact, as I went on, I was more surprised that Hadley did walk away when she did, rather than stay on or agree to any humiliating arrangement that Hem had in mind (a typical male, he wanted it all, his wife Hadley and his lover Pauline, also in typical male fashion, he didn’t want to be the villain). For women, sometimes will do anything for love, or the distant, highly seductive promise of better times.

Knowing when to leave is not easy. I would like to believe that there is however, a sign, a breaking point, which most sensible people do not ignore. I’m glad Hadley didn’t, I am relieved my friend didn’t.

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